Questions surrounding the competence of the Australian Electoral Commission have intensified this week after a report into the Western Australian Senate fiasco catalogued a string of operational deficiencies combined with a “a culture of complacency” in the AEC’s handling of Senate election counts.

Conducted by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, the inquiry was unable to establish when and how 1370 ballot papers went missing in the course of being transported first from regional counting centres to a warehouse in suburban Perth, and then to the site in central Perth where the recount was conducted.

The report nonetheless offers that it is “tempting to say that the ballots are most likely to have been mistakenly destroyed”, with ballots in one case said to have been stacked at a loading dock along with cardboard rubbish destined for a recycling centre.

More pointedly, the AEC is castigated for its “loose planning culture” and “complacent attitude toward ballot papers”, prompting questions to be raised about the security of Ed Killesteyn’s tenure as AEC commissioner.

The responsible minister, Michael Ronaldson, has said both the commission and Killesteyn personally “must accept full responsibility for the failure”, while Killsteyn himself evaded a question put to him on Monday by Fran Kelly on Radio National as to whether he had considered resigning.

Appealing though talk of bureaucrats taking “full responsibility” may be to both politicians and a justifiably aggrieved public, the top brass at the AEC can be forgiven for thinking Ronaldson should have been a little more generous in sharing some of that blame around.

Well before the present situation unfolded, Australia’s leading academic authority on electoral law, Graeme Orr of the University of Queensland, found Australia’s electoral legislation to be “exceedingly detailed to the point of being overwrought”, thanks to “ad hoc parliamentary tinkering” by legislators with a “particular and vested interest in electoral rules”. And sure enough, Keelty’s report points as much to the complicated nature of our electoral machinery as to the competence of the individuals charged with making it work.

One issue is the organisational structure imposed by the Electoral Act, in which each of the 150 electorates has its own responsible officer answering to only six state offices and the central office in Canberra. As Peter Brent of Mumble points out, this causes responsibility for election operations to be thinly spread among officials who have too little to do between elections and too much to do during them, and who suffer the morale problems attendant to a structure that allows few pathways to promotion.

Tellingly, the Keelty report notes that the officer for one of the two electorates from which votes went missing is “known for his care and professionalism”, but was required to leave the B-team in charge at the time the ballot papers were transported as he had been recalled to assist at the recount centre in Perth.

Difficulties of this kind might have been avoided by the organisational overhaul the AEC has long advocated but never been allowed to implement because, as Brent notes, parliamentarians “like having an AEC office in their electorates”. Here at least the government has foreshadowed that remedial action might finally be taken.

Another factor that should be kept in mind is that the loss of 1370 out of 1.3 million ballots was decisive not because of a fine balance of support between those candidates who are in the hunt for the two disputed Senate seats, but because of a close result between two peripheral parties at an early stage of the count. This is symptomatic of an electoral system that in its fantastic complexity introduces multiple mission-critical points to the counting process, each representing an opportunity for things to go wrong — all for the apparent purpose of allowing parties with negligible support to fluke their way to victory.

Despite ample opportunity to consider the increasing mess wrought by above-the-line voting, group preference tickets and proliferating micro-party candidacies, one post-election parliamentary inquiry after another has failed to recommend that anything be done about it.

In other developments, both the ALP and the Palmer United Party have lodged petitions to have the original count validated by the High Court, reflecting their shared objective of winning the final two seats at the expense of the Greens and the Australian Sports Party.

While such an outcome would require the discrepancies exposed during the recount to be overlooked, it can equally be supposed that ordering an unprecedented state-wide byelection is not a decision the court will take lightly, despite it being the favoured position of the AEC. Should it be so, WA voters will return to the polls at an indeterminate time early next year, in what looks likely to be a far more hostile environment for the Coalition than that which prevailed in September.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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